Buzzwords. We can’t seem to do without them. Every couple of years, a new word or concept leaps from the pages of the latest business how-to bestseller and enters the lexicon for working managers. While technical managers are more likely to be reading technical journals than the Harvard Business Review, we’re not immune to the lure of the latest jargon.

That’s why you can’t go through a month of meetings without hearing the word synergy half a dozen times.

The latest buzzword is transparency. Spurred on in part by the Enron debacle, increasing numbers of pundits call for greater openness in financial disclosures and corporate governance.

Surprisingly, I’ve come across a number of posts here at TechRepublic and in e-mails that discuss the need for transparency in IT organizations.

And why not? After all, who could be against greater openness?

Well, I am—at least sometimes. In this column, I’m going to talk about when transparency makes sense and when it doesn’t.

Defining terms
As you might expect, transparency is one of those words that is used more often than it is defined. The very fact that it can mean different things to different people is part of its appeal.

For the purposes of this column, I’m going to use transparency to refer to a quality of openness and candor. This contrasts with its antonym: opaqueness.

What does this mean for a technical manager? When your people ask for more transparency in an organization, they’re usually expressing a frustration at not understanding how decisions are made—or even which decisions are made. Where decision-making is opaque, people tend to feel that decisions are arbitrary. Over time, this can erode your staff’s confidence in your ability to be fair.

Good transparency, bad transparency
At this point, you might be thinking “Viva transparency!” Like democracy, it’s one of those concepts that everyone should be in favor of. However, in real life, it’s not that simple. As every IT manager knows, there are limits to what you can disclose to your team. Total openness can lead to total chaos.

For example, suppose one day, the CIO calls you in to his or her office and announces that your department is being considered for outsourcing. Your CIO hastens to add that even if your department is outsourced, your work is valuable and you would be reassigned to another position in the organization. In the meantime, your CIO wants you to attend some meetings, where different firms will come in and pitch the outsourcing contract. Finally, you are asked to help in evaluating the final proposals and offer insight into whether any of them make sense.

In that situation, what do you do? Do you call your group together and tell them that the CIO has asked you to work in a vendor selection task force to evaluate whether or not their jobs should be outsourced? Even assuming that your CIO would let you do such a thing, would it be prudent to do so?

Total transparency would seem to dictate that you do disclose. I’ve talked to people who feel the same way. Their position is that employees are entitled to any information that could impact their jobs. I’m not sure I agree. Consider that outsourcing task force. Here are the likely results of their work:

  1. None of the vendors has the experience and technical depth to handle the contract.
  2. Some of the vendors have the experience and technical depth to handle the contract, but they are much too expensive.
  3. While the task force identified at least one suitable vendor at a reasonable price, there are strategic reasons to keep the function done by in-house staff.
  4. The task force recommends accepting one of the vendors.

In this situation, only the last result would really impact the people in your department. Do you really want your team to spend the next two months worrying about whether or not the department would be outsourced (especially if you’re not sure whether or not a potential vendor would hire your team)? Do you want your best people making decisions based on what might theoretically happen, requesting transfers to other departments, or even leaving the organization altogether? Do you want them interpreting everything you say or every e-mail you send through the prism of this outsourcing decision?

Isn’t that a recipe for chaos? How can you expect your reports to get any work done in such an environment.

Of course, legal considerations often dictate a certain opaqueness in personnel decisions. For example, if you have to terminate an employee for cause, your HR representative will severely limit what you can say to the remaining staff about the decision.

However, I’d argue that even if there were no legal barrier to full disclosure, there would be sound management reasons for remaining circumspect. After all, while some employees would like to hear the details behind a peer’s termination, many more will ultimately be repelled by your “dishing dirt” on a former colleague, particularly when he or she is not around to defend against your charges.

What to disclose?
So where does this leave us? If we all agree that there are some situations that should not be immediately disclosed to an entire organization, how are we to decide what falls into this category? Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Distinguish between process and results: Let’s go back to the terminated employee example. It’s entirely appropriate for all your people to understand the organization’s disciplinary procedures, which should be totally transparent and understood by all. On the other hand, it’s not always appropriate to be transparent about the specifics of an individual’s situation. In fact, it usually isn’t appropriate.
  • Distinguish between process and thinking: Consider what happens when you post a job opening in your department. Everyone should understand the hiring process, and everyone should feel as if they will be treated fairly when applying for an opening. However, when you make a decision, do you owe everyone an explanation as to why you choose applicant A over applicant B? Of course not. In fact, I would argue that you don’t even owe applicant B total candor about your decision-making. Rather than tell applicant B why applicant A was a better candidate, spend your time telling candidate B what he or she can do to improve, so that he or she will be ready the next time an opening occurs. At the same time, tell the unsuccessful candidate what you will do to help him or her improve.